Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Paul's Ignorance of the Earthly Jesus, Part 3: Claims 8-14

I now continue with the conclusion of my examination of David's rejoinders to my points in response to the citations from Paul's letters alleged to have come from knowledge he supposedly had of the earthly Jesus. (Whew!)

Claim #8:

Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Cor. 3:22)

I responded:

Paul tells us that he had a very involved conflict with Peter, but he never tells us that Jesus gave Peter this name. This is not even hinted at in anything Paul says about Peter. In fact, Paul nowhere indicates that Peter was a traveling companion of Jesus on earth before the crucifixion. Later writers were probably perplexed by the use of two names for Peter, and explained it by having the Jesus of their narratives give the name Cephas to Peter in an exchange which is nowhere given in Paul.

David’s rejoinder:

Interesting speculation, but my only question is how would one conclude that Peter/Cephas were the same person going from source material alone with no historical backbone?

First of all, notice that David has not challenged these points from my statement above:

1. Paul tells us that he had a very involved conflict with Peter, but he never tells us that Jesus gave Peter this name.

2. This is not even hinted at in anything Paul says about Peter.

3. In fact, Paul nowhere indicates that Peter was a traveling companion of Jesus on earth before the crucifixion.

Were David to challenge these, I would expect to see statements drawn from Paul’s authentic letters which contradict them.

Second, since the question is what knowledge Paul had of the earthly Jesus, Paul’s reference to Peter as Cephas does not qualify, precisely because Paul never suggests anything like what we read in John 1:42, where the evangelist has Jesus bestow Peter with the name ‘Cephas’.

Also, my proposal is certainly not farfetched, since, as I have shown, Paul does not explain his use of two names. Also, the backbone identifying Peter with Cephas need not have been historical so much as linguistic, since both words in their respective languages mean the same thing: in Aramaic, ‘cephas’ means ‘rock’, and in Greek, ‘petros’ is the masculine equivalent of ‘petra’, which means ‘rock’. Later writers could easily have taken this transliteration and constructed a story from it: Jesus dubbed Peter with the name ‘Cephas’ to emphasize his imperturbable faith. But at that point we have fiction, not history.

Claim #9:

Jesus had a brother named James. (Galations 1:19)

I responded:

We've already beaten this horse to death. Paul never gives a brother to Jesus - that is, a biological sibling to the earthly, pre-crucifixion Jesus. Paul is clear in reference James as "the brother of the Lord," which title signifies the post-resurrection Jesus. James, it was seen, was referred to as one of the "pillars" of the church by Paul. It is most probable then that Paul is referring to James with a fraternity title, similar to the one he uses for an unspecified number of persons in I Cor. 9:5, where he states: "Have we no right to lead about a wife that is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?" Here Paul is obviously referencing the upper echelon of the Christianity of his day. It would be hard to suppose that Paul is referring to a group of biological siblings of Jesus here. Instead, he's speaking of an inner circle group, who were obviously held in high regard. The assumption that Paul is referring to a biological relationship is generated by reading the gospel details into Paul's letters, when in fact Paul's letters in no way confirm this reading.

David’s rejoinder:

What we’ve seen is you have no argument for your interpretation. Not one of your points has passed the bar. All the citations you quoted were unsupported assertions or admitted speculation, and reference to “extant texts” which you have failed to provide information about. No I’d say the horse has been beaten to death alright but you seem to be confused about who’s holding the stick.

What argument has David provided for supposing that Paul meant a biological sibling when he refers to James as "the brother of the Lord"? He's provided none. All he can do is appeal to the gospels. But I've already explained why this is at best shaky. It's a dead horse because I've already pointed to both motive and opportunity for later writers to exploit what is likely a fraternal title to the end of giving Jesus a biological sibling in their concoction of a historical narrative.

David wrote:

All you said about the external sources is basically “well they were just propounding the legend from the Gospels, so we can’t trust them either."

David is frustrated because he resents my view that the gospels are legends. This is why he feels the need to cast it in simplistic terms.

David wrote:

I have already told you that 1 Cor 9:5 is also addressing the same group of literal brothers mentioned in the Gospel.

Specifically what in 1 Cor. 9:5 suggests that Paul has "literal brothers" (i.e., biological siblings) in mind? David simply asserts that it must mean this, but clearly he's assuming the truth of the gospels at this point and artificially reading them into Paul’s epistle. But the truth of the gospel stories is what's in question.

David wrote:

I guess they misunderstood that one too, and figured it would make for good fiction.

It's certainly possible that they misunderstood it. And it is clear that they (the gospel writers) did not view their own work as historical chronicles, but as storybook narratives intended to concretize theological notions which they expected readers to accept as truth.

David wrote:

You said “It would be hard to suppose that Paul is referring to a group of biological siblings of Jesus here.” To which I simply respond that, “It would be hard to suppose that Paul is referring to a group of highly regarded inner circle members (of which Cephas is excluded)."

Why? Paul calls non-biologically related persons ‘brother’ all the time in his letters. The term ‘brother’ was commonly used by Paul and other early Christians to designate fellow believers, and such use carried no implication of a biological relationship. Is it hard to suppose that the "500 brethren" whom Paul mentions in I Cor. 15 were not biological siblings? If not, why would it be hard to suppose that Paul has no sibling relationship in mind when he mentions "the brethren of the Lord" in I Cor. 9:5? Moreover, his statements in Galatians clearly indicate that there was an inner core of leadership within the Jerusalem church. So all the factors for the interpretation I believe is most reasonable from the text are there, while all David can do is assert his view in the interest of protecting literalist Christian dogma. He gives no support for his preferred interpretation.

David wrote:

The assumption that Paul is not referring to a biological relationship is generated ad-hoc in support of the legend theory’s interpretation of Paul’s letters, when in fact Paul’s letters in no way confirm this reading nor does any external source throughout the first 1700+ years of Christianity”

Here David is projecting: since he begins with a grand conclusion (e.g., the gospel portraits of Jesus are historically accurate) and works backwards from this as his guiding assumption, he figures everyone else operates the same way, which in fact is not the case.

Claim #10:

Jesus initiated the Lord's supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)

I responded:

As I asked before, when does Paul say this happened? Where? Under what circumstances? Who attended this event? Paul doesn't give any details. Later writers came along and supplied them. Paul gave the primitive rudiments, indicating no time, place or historical setting. In fact, I don't even find any indication that Paul is associating "the Lord's supper" with the Passover. It would be temptingly easy for later writers to take what Paul writes here and redress it in a narrative situation that seemed historical, but is essentially just a piece of fiction.

David’s rejoinder:

Ignoring the usual tiresome questioning ploys, and your repetitive bald assertions about later writers supplying details (I think you include this in every response to the bullet list, as if reasserting you point provides further argumentation)….uhh oh wait that’s all there is. :P

Of course, one way to keep oneself from facing problems is to ignore questions which draw our attention to them. As for later writers supplying details to the kind of bare threadwork that Paul reports, how is noting this progression from lack of details (no time, place or circumstances in the case of Paul’s crucifixion, resurrection, supper scene) in Paul’s letters, to full-fledged biographical narratives in later writers a case of “repetitive bald assertions”? What would keep later writers from taking motifs from earlier traditions which had no ties to specific historical settings, and grafting them into constructed narratives of Jesus’ earthly life? Yes, I expect a serious answer to this question.

Claim #11:

Jesus' death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Cor. 5:7)

I responded:

Is Paul saying that Jesus was crucified around the Passover holiday? I don't get that from this. This is Pauline symbolism, derived from his Jewish roots, and later writers took references like this and assembled them into their narrative. Again, it would be temptingly easy for them to do this.

David’s rejoinder:

See Mk 14:12 and Lu 22:7

This is unhelpful for the literalist view, since it is already agreed that the gospels put Jesus’ crucifixion on the occasion of the Passover. Let’s go back to Paul and take a look at what I Cor. 5:7 states. It states:

Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.

Note how Paul is here equating Christ with “our passover,” which is clearly symbolic. He is certainly not saying that Jesus’ crucifixion took place on the occasion of the Passover festival. I do not see that being stated here, and I’d like to see how one can derive this from what Paul says here. “Many commentators,” Wells points out (The Jesus Myth, p. 71), “(for instance Ruef [Paul’s First Letter to Corinth], p. 42 ad loc.) agree that all this has nothing to do with the date of the crucifixion or the Last Supper: the identification of the death with the Passover is ‘first and foremost theological and is not dependent on chronology’.” Paul is giving us theological symbolism here; he is not referring to an historic event.

Claim #12:

The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Cor. 2:8)

I responded:

It is not clear what Paul means here by "princes of this world" (the ESV translates this phrase as "rules of this age" and the ASV has it as "rulers of this world"). Doherty has some interesting thoughts on this:

Where, then, was Jesus crucified and by whom? Like the myths of the savior gods, this deed took place in the mythical world, the upper spirit realm of Platonic philosophy, where spiritual processes were seen to be located. It was the work of demon spirits. Paul says, in I Corinthians 2:8, that those who “crucified the Lord of glory” were “the rulers of this age.” That phrase is not a reference to human authorities on earth, but to the demon spirits, who were regarded as controlling the world in the present age of history and who would be overthrown with the arrival of the new apocalyptic age... This was the interpretation of 2:8 by ancient commentators like Marcion and Origen. Modern critical scholars have largely followed suit: Brandon, Barrett, Hering, Fredriksen. Paul Ellingworth, Translator’s Handbook for I Corinthians, p. 46, says: “A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here.” The Ascension of Isaiah, a Jewish-Christian document in the Pseudepigrapha, foretells the Son descending through the layers of heaven, hiding his identity from the angels and demons until he reaches the lower celestial sphere, where he is “crucified by the god of the world,” meaning Satan (chapter 9). The crucifixion of Paul’s Christ was a spiritual event. (Challenging the Verdict, pp. 250-251)

David asserted:

It is clear that what Paul means here is both the Jewish rulers and the Roman governor.

Where does Paul put such specificity to what he says in I Cor. 2:8? And why no support for this assertion? Again, the issue is Paul's knowledge of the earthly Jesus. Does Paul tell us who he thinks put Jesus to the cross? Only vaguely. He identifies no one in particular here.

David continued:

Doherty supports his absurd, err I mean interesting, Gnostic interpretation by pointing to early Gnostic Christians who consistently blend the two systems together…surprise surprise!

Again failing to produce an argument, David resorts to sneering at sources that have been cited as if this constituted a refutation or could substitute for a counter-argument. He ignores not only the fact that the phraseology in I Cor. 2:8 provides a wide latitude of interpretation, in no way necessitating the literalist view he claims it clearly indicates, but discounts Doherty's point by preferring his literalist interpretation against an interpretation which he associates with that dreaded, heretical foe, Gnosticism. But notice that Doherty does not appeal exclusively to Marcion and Origen. He notes that “modern critical scholars have largely followed suit” in this interpretation of “rulers of this age,” and named several, including Brandon, Barrett, Hering, Fredriksen, and Ellingworth, notably the latter’s Translator’s Handbook for I Corinthians, which I would think David might accept as at least somewhat of a reliable source, which states: “A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here.” David dismisses all of this with the wave of his hand, simply because this position is associated with Marcion and Origen. Amazing!

David huffed and puffed:

If you wish to hide behind what a “majority of scholars think” you better be consistent with that.

Or else what? As part of his meltdown, David resorts to tough talk, which is common with apologists who find themselves hanging on the ropes. He has continually complained about my reliance on “rhetoric,” and yet here he is doing the same thing, insinuating that I am “hiding” in some way. To be perfectly blunt here, there are times when I do agree with the predominant views among scholars, and there are times when I do not. I do not decide my position by tallying the numbers in favor for it.

Claim #13:

Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)

I responded:

These are themes that are common throughout the Psalms and Isaiah, both of which very highly influenced Paul’s views. Romans 15:3, the very passage you cite here, quotes Psalms 69:9, which is attributed by the OT to David! Moreover, when Paul refers to Jesus’ abuse and humiliation, he refers to them only vaguely, and gives no historical setting, indicating no specifics of the occasion. Later writers (i.e., of the gospels) take this motif and elaborate on it in their passion scenes, which are variously embellished in the different versions.

David’s rejoinder:

Wow I’m seeing a trend here Dawson…1)point out “missing” stuff 2)assert the legend theory. Are you using a template or something this is crazy?! How would you like it if every single one of my responses started with “since the Gospels are all historical factual accounts…?”

The question before us is: What knowledge did Paul have of the earthly Jesus. As evidence of Paul’s knowledge of the earthly Jesus is a citation to Romans 15:3 which is apparently taken to confirm the view that Paul knew of the passion sequences found in the gospels. Look at what Romans 15:3 states:

For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me’.

As I pointed out in my initial response to David’s claim, Paul is quoting from Psalm 69:9, which states:

For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.

It’s clear here that Paul is drawing from the OT, not from knowledge he allegedly has of Jesus’ earthly biography. It is through such citations that the early Christians conceived of Jesus, as a savior already present in the OT literature. For Paul, “seeing” this savior already suggested in the OT may be all that constitutes “revelation” for him. This is not some simplistic “template” of my own here. After all, I did not write Paul’s letters, and I am not the one trying to link Jesus to the OT; Christians have done this since the very beginning. Since the question before us has to do with what Paul knew about the earthly Jesus, we need to review the citations given from Paul’s letters which are purported to attest to his knowledge of the earthly Jesus, and see where he might have gotten them. Clearly this is not a reference to Jesus’ life on earth, but an excerpt from the OT grafted into a concoction which was later filled in with specific details to create a narrative of Jesus’ earthly life. There is certainly no reference to time or place of the reproaches Paul mentions here, indeed no specifics at all.

Claim #14:

Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus' death. (1 Thess. 2:14-16)

I responded:

Doherty points out for us that many scholars are of the view that I Thess. 2:15-16 is an interpolation into an otherwise (for the most part) authentically Pauline letter. He writes: [insert lots of unsupported assertions and citations to other scholars who may have argued something

In the quotation which David omitted here, Doherty names five scholars who consider the passage in question to be an interpolation. I also pointed to two additional scholars identified by Wells who consider it an interpolation. On page 241 (n.16) of his book Challenging the Verdict, Doherty gives some more specifics:

Some scholars who regard the passage as an interpolation: Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? Harper San Francisco (1995), p. 113; Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians, Yale Univ. Press (1983), p. 9, n.117; Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, Fortress Press, Philadelphia (1982), vol. II, p. 113; Paul Fredriksen: From Jesus to Christ, Yale Univ. Press (1988), p. 122; Birger A. Pearson: “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971 p. 79-94.

Here’s what Paula Fredriksen writes about I Thess. 2:14-16 in the citation given by Doherty:

There are many impediments to accepting this as authentically Pauline. Its sweeping condemnation of “the Jews” contrasts strongly with the way Paul speaks of his own people elsewhere (e.g., Rom 9-11). Its invocation of the prophet-martyr tradition and its accusation of a Jewish spiritual stinginess toward the Gentiles implies an acquaintance with the later synoptic tradition. And finally the past completed action of the final phrase – “God’s wrath has come upon them at last!” – most readily calls to mind the Temple’s destruction in 70. But the strongest argument against Pauline authorship of this passage is Paul’s undisputedly authentic statement in I Cor. 2:8: “None of the rulers (archontes) of this age (aiōn) understood this [secret and hidden wisdom of God]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The archons of this aeon, I have argued, are to be understood as astral, nonhuman entities. But if Paul did refer here to the human agents in Jesus’ death, the “rulers of this age” could only be the Romans [i.e., not “the Jews”].

David’s rejoinder:

You haven’t demonstrated it as an interpolation so really your response shows nothing other than Doherty and others trying to make sense of their Platonic eisogesis of Paul.

Well, if David won’t take it from scholars in the know, why would he accept it from lil’ ol’ me?

by Dawson Bethrick


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Paul's Ignorance of the Earthly Jesus, Part 2: Claims 1-7

Now let’s review David’s rejoinders to my counterpoints in regard to the first seven claims that have been made to the effect that Paul had knowledge of the earthly Jesus.

Claim #1:

Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galations 4:4)

I responded:

Yes, Paul does say that Jesus was born. But where was he born? When was he born? Who were his parents? Paul gives us no indication of these things. Paul mentions that he had a mother, but nowhere suggests that he was born a virgin. This legendary element came later as some communities sought to assimilate motifs from rival religions into their own version of Christianity.

David's rejoinder:

Your response is unrelated to what my statement intended to accomplish, which was merely that Paul did say some things about Jesus. Actually you continue to do this for the rest of the post, but I’ll only mention it once.

That "Paul did say some things about Jesus" is not disputed. It has never been something I’ve disputed. My point has been to show that, even when Paul does speak of Jesus, he is not giving details like we find in the gospels, nor do his references confirm the gospels' specifics. In other words, he is not drawing from history as the gospels portray it. For instance, when Paul affirms that Jesus was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4), he does not give her name, he does not in any way suggest that she was a virgin, he does not indicate when Jesus was born, where he was born, or the circumstances surrounding his birth. The when, where and who of Jesus' birth are details which Paul leaves completely unattended. What Paul does give us is completely open-ended; it's not incompatible with the possibility that Jesus was born in Jerusalem or Alexandria or Tyre or in the Macedonian countryside; that his mother's name was Josephine and already had 3 children; that he was born in 316 BCE, etc.

Claim #2:

Jesus was referred to as "Son of God". (1 Cor. 1:9)

I responded:

On this, Wells notes significantly:

Paul characteristically applies to [Jesus] titles such as Lord and Son of God – titles which already existed within Judaism and also in pagan religions (see [H. Braun, ‘Der Sinn der NT Christology’, Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche, 54, pp 350-1) – although Jewish monotheistic influences prevents the earliest Christian writers from calling him God. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 18)

If this is true – that the title “Son of God” was already in use “within Judaism and also in pagan religions” – this is another motif which Christianity borrowed from predecessor religions and applied to Jesus. As such, it has theological, but not historical meaning: it does nothing to specify a historical setting to Paul’s Jesus.

David's rejoinder:

First the usage in Judaism is vastly different from the usage in pagan religions. I’m assuming he’s referring to the passage in Daniel. This phrase in Hebrew is completely different than the pagan concept of gods mating with women to have superhuman offspring. To compare the two is to demonstrate a deficient and surface level understanding of both traditions.

Again, the issue is what did Paul know of the earthly Jesus. As my point demonstrates, Paul need not have had familiarity with the earthly Jesus described in the gospels to have used these titles in reference to him. Even if one does want to claim that "the usage in Judaism is vastly different from the usage in pagan religions,” this would not link Paul’s reference to Jesus as “the Son of God” to knowledge of the earthly Jesus. This title was already infused in the existing religions of the day, so Paul’s use of it does not indicate familiarity with the earthly Jesus.

Claim #3:

Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. (Romans 1:3)

I responded:

David was highly venerated by the Jews, as the legends about him in the OT indicate. Also, since Paul was drawing on OT themes as the palate for his portrait of Jesus, linking him to David would hardly be surprising. Again Wells poignantly nails it: "There are many centuries between David and Paul, and Paul gives no indication in which of them Jesus’ earthly life fell." (Did Jesus exist?, p. 18) The reference to Jesus as coming from the seed of David opens the possible timeline for Paul’s Jesus significantly.

David's rejoinder:

So you’re asserting your conclusions on the data and saying Paul just made it up. All I was saying is Paul mentions it….hmm. Seems like the rhetoric just snowballs lately in these posts. Wells poignantly argues from silence, which is hardly unanticipated given his atheist agenda. Sorry I’m having too much fun, I’ll stop. :P

Still in the throes of a meltdown, David characterizes my position as "saying Paul just made it up," which is not what I stated. I'll state it again: Paul was drawing on OT themes to inform his view of Jesus – not from reported history of the earthly Jesus (for instance, Paul gives no genealogy here), so linking him to David should be of no surprise. Again it's important to remember that Paul tells us that he got his knowledge of the gospel by revelation (Gal. 1:11-12) as opposed to historical reports. I have asked David to explain how this works, and unsurprisingly he has chosen not to pursue this question. For Paul, ‘revelation’ involved reinterpreting OT texts. Also, pointing out that "Paul gives no indication" of which century the earthly Jesus lived, is not an argument from silence. It's simply an observation, and if it were in error one should be able to overturn it by presenting a counter-observation, which David has not supplied. Again, David does not recover the point on behalf of the claim that Paul had any familiarity with the Jesus portrayed in the gospels.

Claim #4:

Jesus prayed to God using the term ‘abba’. (Galations 4:6)

I responded:

When does Paul have his Jesus do this, and where? How does Paul know? Is Paul making a historical reference, or is he making a theological point? The context of the Galatians passage suggests the latter rather than the former. This interpretation is only buttressed by its appearance in Mark, the earliest gospel:

David’s rejoinder:

The term “abba” is the Aramaic equivalent of “daddy.” The fact that Jesus would use such a term to address YHWH, the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is absolutely ludicrous in a Jewish context. What evidence does Vermes present?

David is apparently unwilling to do his own research. But ultimately I don’t really see the relevance even if one does dispute Vermes’ proposal on the matter, since the claim that Paul has Jesus praying to God using the term ‘abba’ already misconstrues Gal. 4:6, and this claim could only be relevant as a challenge to my position if it can be shown that Paul is citing this from history – i.e., from knowledge of the earthly Jesus. Take a look at Gal. 4:6. It states:

And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.

Paul makes use of the term ‘abba’ elsewhere, in Rom. 8:15:

For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.

None of these quotes suggests that “Jesus prayed to God using the term ‘abba’,” certainly not as we read in the gospels. But even supposing one did get this interpretation from Paul (albeit by reading the gospels into his letters), he gives no indication of time or place or circumstances for this. And how would Paul know if Jesus prayed ‘abba’? The gospels had not been written yet, so he certainly did not get this from them. Did he get it from Peter when he encountered him in Jerusalem or Antioch? Paul nowhere indicates that he did. Also, there are some additional problems regarding this for the historical Jesus side of things, but I’ll get into this soon enough below.

David wrote:

Don’t cite sources to buttress your point if you merely intend to use their assertions and not their arguments.

Um, I’ll do whatever the hell I want. I certainly do not take orders from David.

David went on:

Anyway, this kind of thing is what got him crucified in the first place.

I don’t think even the gospels have Jesus being crucified because he called the father deity “abba” in a private prayer. Indeed, Paul in no way suggests that this is what got Jesus crucified.

David wrote:

If the Jews were comfortable with it, then they sure reacted funny (well I guess I’m assuming they really reacted and you would merely contend the reaction was staged to prove a point by the author).

Since David brings it up, let’s think about the Jews’ reactions to the Jesus of Christianity according to the New Testament for a moment. In the gospels, they want Jesus crucified for breaking their religious laws. But in the book of Acts, Peter is able to convert thousands of Jerusalem’s Jews with a couple sermons not long after the crucifixion. As Wells points out:

Peter's speeches in the early chapters of Acts go down extraordinarily well. He declares that "God foreshewed by the mouth of all the prophets that his Christ should suffer" (3:18). One might expect Jews to regard this as stretching their scriptures more than a bit. But no, Peter's audience accepted it in their thousands (4:4). This speech, and his previous one at Pentecost, have sufficed to Christianize what has been calculated as one fifth of the then population of Jerusalem. (Can We Trust the New Testament?, pp. 90-91)

In his speech before a multitude of Jerusalem Jews which served to convert some “three thousand souls” according to Acts 2:41, Peter refers to God as “the Father” (v. 33). Apparently these Jews did not have a problem with this, and in so short a time after their leadership had allegedly delivered Jesus to Pilate to be crucified. Indeed, that the Jerusalem Christians were so prominent and publicly active in the Jewish capital of the time, apparently only three or so months after their god-man had been sentenced to death for capital crimes, seems quite implausible. Wells explains how this commonly overlooked implausibility also works against the view that Jesus had a biological brother:

It is almost universally supposed that James was the brother of Jesus, and thus that Paul, James, and Cephas alike worshipped a Jesus recently executed at the behest of the Jerusalem authorities as a Messianic pretender, as “king of the Jews” according to the gospels. But if the Jerusalem authorities had found Jesus sufficiently dangerous to have eliminated him, is it plausible that they would have left unmolested, for a generation or more, his close followers in the same city who were implicating themselves in all that he had stood for by proclaiming that his resurrection had vindicated him as God’s Messiah, and that he would shortly return and inaugurate his kingdom? Followers who thus proclaimed his persisting power would surely have been recognized as defiant of the authorities who had so recently killed him, and as much a threat to public order as he himself had been. It seems, then, that we must abandon the premises that James and Cephas (any more than Paul) were closely linked – by blood relationship or by personal acquaintance – with a recently active Jesus who had been found worse than merely troublesome. If, however, they and the community they led in Jerusalem constituted no more than an obscure Jewish sect, worshipping, as Paul did, a distant figure who was probably quite unknown to the authorities of the time, then it is understandable that they were allowed to survive untroubled. M.P. Miller has justly noted that this problem of reconciling the gospels’ view of Jesus’s Passion and execution with “the establishment and survival for more than a generation of a Jerusalem church as a Messianic movement in the same city has hardly ever surfaced, let alone been adequately addressed” ([“’Beginning from Jerusalem’... Re-examining Canon and Consensus,” Journal of Higher Criticism 2 (1995)], p. 7). It is, he adds, a problem which should “make one far less inclined to suppose that the Gospel Passion narratives constitute sources from which one can extract and reconstruct the historical circumstances and reasons for the death of Jesus” (p. 20) (The Jesus Myth, p. 69)

The portrait which we find of the Jerusalem church in Acts, makes its leaders larger than life, performing miraculous works left and right and preaching to thousands at a time. In what we are led to believe would be just a matter of weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion by Jerusalem authorities, Jesus’ followers are represented as no quiet bunch, drawing attention to themselves as they preached Jesus resurrected and performed wonders in his name before large crowds. If the Jerusalem authorities found Jesus to be sufficient a threat to have him executed, how can we believe that in so short a time after Jesus’ execution his followers were not only marching on with Jesus’ message, but also preaching to Jerusalem’s masses and converting its citizens by the thousands? As history, this is all most implausible and indicates a later tradition by which time the view of Christian beginnings had grown in grandeur to what we have in Acts, a sort of ‘Golden Age’ picture of the apostles and their adventures as they spread the new religion.

David wrote:

If indeed this isn’t historical (the usage is multiply attested mind you), then some explanation is required.

Why is historical accuracy the only plausible explanation for Paul’s reference to ‘abba’? We saw above that Paul’s references to ‘abba’ do not even suggest that Paul meant that Jesus had used this term in his prayers. Paul was apparently referencing an early Christian prayer practice, but he in no way suggests that this originated from a prayer that Jesus had prayed in his pre-crucifixion life. Indeed, Paul attributes it to “the Spirit.”

David wrote:

You focus on Mark, but there are numerous references elsewhere such as Matt 7:21; 10:32-33; 11:27; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10,14; 20:23; 25:34; 26:39, 42,53; Luke 10:22; 22:29; 24:49; plus 22 other occurrences in John.

The reason why I’ve focused on Mark 14:36 is because it is the only instance in the gospels which put the word ‘abba’ into Jesus’ mouth. All the references which David gives here are to ‘Father’ using the Greek word ‘pater’; they are not instances of the occurrence of ‘abba’ in Jesus’ prayers. Acts would have us believe that Jews had no problem with referring to the creator of the universe as ‘Father’ as public preaching making use of this reference has them converted by the thousands, as we saw above. The claim in question is that Paul knew that Jesus had prayed to God using the term ‘abba’, and Mark 14:36 is the only instance in any of the gospel narratives which does this. Even when Matthew gets to the part in Mark’s gospel where Jesus goes off by himself in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray his hesitation prayer (the gospels have him make this prayer in secret, so who would have witnessed it?), he omits the word ‘abba’ (Mt. 26:39). For some reason the author of Matthew didn’t think it made sense. Clearly the evangelist considered the monologue in Mark to be subject to redaction.

It should be pointed out here that the early Christians’ use of ‘Father’ was not unprecedented in Jewish literature. Even in the OT, we find references to Yahweh as ‘Father’. See for example Isaiah 63:16, 64:8, which explicitly refer to Yahweh as “our Father” and with which Paul would have undoubtedly been familiar. So referring to God as “Father” was not something new, as it had a long heritage in the Judaism of the day.

Besides, Mark 14:36 allows for no witnesses, since it has Jesus praying in private when he utters the formula, “Abba, Father.” This is literature at this point, not history.

David continued:

As Darrell Bock points out: “Source levels here include unique Matthean material, unique Lukan material, and some Matthean-Lukan texts (=Q). The expression is multiple attested.” (Jesus According to Scripture, pg 592)

Which expression enjoys multiple attestation here? ‘Abba’? It appears only in Mark and Paul’s epistles. I find no use of it in either Matthew or Luke. The foregoing points clearly indicate that it does not enjoy multiple attestation. Indeed, why does Matthew drop the reference to ‘abba’ in his version of the same hesitation prayer episode? We are talking about the same thing, are we not?

David concluded:

So it looks like this tradition has a much more probable explanation if grounded in historical fact then legend, unless an adequate explanation for the legend being dispersed across all possible source material can be conjured up, err I mean postulated. :P

Again, are we talking about the same thing here? The question before us is whether Paul’s reference to ‘abba’ came from knowledge he had of the historical Jesus rather than from a traditional formula whose roots lie elsewhere, such as Aramaic-speaking Christian communities. When Paul makes reference to ‘Abba, Father’ in Gal. 4:6 and Rom. 8:15, is he suggesting that Jesus prayed this at some point during his life on earth? I find no such suggestion in either passage, and would like to see some explanation for why one might think this. David gives none. Even if Jesus did speak this in his prayers, how would Paul know about it? The gospels were not written yet, so he could not have read about it. Paul never suggests that he learned this from his interaction with other Christians (e.g., Peter), and in fact does not put this word into Jesus’ mouth anywhere in his letters. The only time ‘abba’ appears in the New Testament outside Paul’s letters is in Mark 14:36, where Jesus is depicted as praying in private; the episode allows for no witnesses to the prayer Mark puts into Jesus’ mouth here, so it appears to be a literary invention, not a historical anecdote. If it were historical, why do both Matthew (at 26:39) and Luke (at 22:42) omit it? I surmise that the textual evidence in no way points to a historical chronicle here, but rather to a construction on the part of the evangelists.

Claim #5:

Jesus expressly forbid divorce. (1 Cor. 7:10)

I wrote:

Does Paul say when, or where, or indicate the circumstances of this delivery? How would Paul know this? That’s right, Paul appeals to revelation as the means by which he learned his gospel. Later writers could easily take such references and put them into a portrait of an earthly Jesus purported by some to be historical. How hard would it be to do this?

David's rejoinder:

This is beginning to become quite tiresome. You are assuming that Paul needs to buttress his doctrinal and theological points with historical context…totally unsupported assertion and the counterfactual has been argued quite convincingly by yours truly. In addition, as you’ve agreed, Paul’s audience was already open to the supernatural so why would he write to them as if they were some skeptic? If you wish for Paul to have such intentions in mind, I will insist that you argue for such an unusual exegetical framework.

David has forgotten that the issue is Paul's knowledge of the earthly Jesus, that is, the pre-crucifixion Jesus, whose biography is what the gospel narratives are supposed to portray. It’s not whether or not “Paul needs to buttress his doctrinal and theological points with historical context,” it’s that he consistently fails to do this, most noticeably when doing so would help strengthen his arguments. The implication behind the claim in question here is that Paul’s reference to Jesus forbidding divorce suggests familiarity with the earthly Jesus. But as we probe this claim, we find no reference to time, place or occasion when Jesus is supposed to have given such a ruling. Look at what the verse in question (I Cor. 7:10) states:

And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband.

Paul seems to be appealing to a revelation from Christ in heaven here, and makes no suggestion that this is a teaching that Jesus had delivered while on earth. Wells points out in relation to this:

Another striking feature of Paul’s letters is that one could never gather from them that Jesus had been an ethical teacher. Paul is not indifferent to ethical problems; on the contrary, his epistles abound in ethical admonition. But on only one occasion does he appeal to the authority of Jesus to support an ethical teaching which the gospels also represent Jesus as having delivered; and in this instance it is not necessary to suppose thtat Paul believed that the doctrine in question had been taught by the historical (as opposed to the risen) Jesus. (The Historical Evidence For Jesus, p. 23)

Wells also points out that the instruction “Let not the wife depart from her husband,” could make sense in Gentile Christian communities, where Paul issues it. But where Mark gives Jesus’ teachings on divorce (10:11-12), Wells rightly points out that such teaching makes no sense for the community which the gospel has Jesus addressing, namely a Jewish community in Palestine:

Some of the sayings Mark ascribes to Jesus were obviously never spoken by a historical Jesus, but were concocted in a Christian community remote in place in time from the Palestine of AD 30. For instance, in Mk. 10:12 Jesus rules that if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. Such an utterance would have been meaningless in Palestine, where only men could obtain divorce. It is a ruling for the Gentile Christian readers of Mark, which the evangelist put into Jesus’ mouth in order to give it authority. This tendency to anchor later customs and institutions to Jesus’ supposed lifetime played a considerable role in the building up of his biography. (Ibid., p. 13)

So even here, there are noteworthy incongruities which point, like a smoking gun, to the development of a legend.

In addition, David's comments imply a dichotomy which I have not endorsed, namely: that either Paul would never refer to the historical context in which Jesus gave teachings that he believes he made while in the flesh, or he would be treating the intended audience of his letters, who already accepted supernaturalism, as skeptics. This is quite a stretch. Would Paul necessarily be treating his congregants as skeptics if he made references to Jesus’ earthly activities? I don’t think so. Were the evangelists treating their intended audiences as skeptics when they penned their narratives of the earthly Jesus’ life? Were the later epistle writers who did include references to the earthly Jesus in their writings treating their intended audiences as skeptics? Are preachers today treating their congregations as skeptics when they make references to aspects of Jesus’ life as it is portrayed in the gospels? This seems a rather desperate attempt to deflect the point of the matter.

Claim #6:

Jesus taught that ‘preachers’ should be paid for their preaching. (1 Cor. 9:14)

I responded:

Another feature that Paul got from the OT. He even quotes Deut. 25:4 in I Cor. 9:9. Paul is not giving evidence of familiarity with an earthly Jesus here; he gives no indication of a historical setting on earth where Jesus would have given such instruction, and attributes the teaching to “the Lord,” for Paul, the risen Jesus, not the earthly Jesus. The later writers (i.e., of the gospels) take this reference, which has ecclesiastical significance for Paul, and give it the impression of historical significance by putting the teaching into Jesus’ mouth (cf. Mt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7).

David's rejoinder:

Oh I get it so Jesus can’t be Jewish and use the Old Testament but Paul clearly does. But you haven’t shown where in the OT this teaching (1 Cor 9:14) can be derived from????????? The later writers (i.e., of the gospels) take this reference, which has ecclesiastical significance for Paul, and provide a more in-depth historical context that illuminate Jesus’ teachings on the subject (cf. Mt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7).

I have nowhere stated that "Jesus can't be Jewish and use the Old Testament." That "Paul clearly does" is borne out by Paul's own writing, as I have shown. And as I mentioned above, just a few verses prior to I Cor. 9:14, Paul quotes Deut. 25:4 (“Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn,” which a later writer, posing as Paul, quotes to justify the conclusion that “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (I Tim. 5:18). In the I Cor. 9 passage, Paul is actually showing us how he reasons from the quote taken from Deut. 25:4 to secure the conclusion that preachers should be paid for their preaching, a rather self-serving instruction which his own writing shows how he derives it from the OT. He even appeals to common temple practice of the day in v. 13. Is it really so farfetched that a preacher would demand financial support from his congregants and claim this is God’s will?

What David does not do is show where Paul gives a historical setting for the earthly Jesus issuing this instruction, which is the point in question here. Paul took a teaching from the OT to its logical conclusion for his context as a preacher, and attributes it to "the Lord." Later writers, concocting historical narratives for the earthly Jesus, then took this reference and inserted it into Jesus’ mouth.

Claim #7:

Paul's "Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thess. 4:15)

I responded:

Again, Paul is here appealing to “the Lord” (as opposed to Jesus), which signifies for him the risen savior. Nor Paul does indicate a historical context for the teaching he ascribes to “the Lord.” By referring to “we” here (instead of “they” or some other third person reference), Paul indicates (as he does in other passages) his belief that Jesus’ return was coming soon, probably even within his own expected lifetime. No such luck. But this did not prevent later writers from adapting the gloom and doom eschatology and putting it into Jesus’ mouth.

David's rejoinder:

Well you’ve not failed to consistently assert that kurios refers to a risen Jesus as opposed to an earthly Jesus. How exactly does one make such a distinction (hint: pointing out that Paul didn’t tell us doesn’t count). 1 Cor 12:3 “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.” And don’t forget about the most important verse of all! Romans 10: 9 “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

These quotes actually help my position. Let's recall how in Rom. 1:4 Paul makes it clear that Jesus' power came "by the resurrection from the dead." The verses which David quotes here, which state "Jesus is Lord," do not constitute a refutation of Rom. 1:4, nor are they a counterexample disproving Paul’s habit of referring to the risen Jesus as Lord. Rather, Rom. 1:4 provides a context by which we can understand these verses. Even in the Rom. 10:9 verse, that the risen Jesus is what Paul has in mind here is obvious.

But again, notice that David does not recover the point for his side, for he does not attempt to counter my observation (namely that Paul gives no historical context for the eschatological pronouncement here which he attributes to “the Lord” here) by citing a historical context given by Paul in which "Jesus taught about the end-time," which is what he would need to do in order to claim this point on behalf of Paul's knowledge of the earthly Jesus. Again, Paul is not drawing from knowledge of the earthly Jesus, rather he is appealing to knowledge revealed to him by the risen Lord.

I will continue with the remaining claims in my next post.

by Dawson Bethrick


Monday, September 22, 2008

Paul's Ignorance of the Earthly Jesus, Part 1: Prologue and Preliminary Basics


One of the more fascinating inquiries into the New Testament is the question of what Paul knew of the earthly Jesus. As readers should already know, Paul was not, according to the NT, a companion of Jesus during his earthly life and ministry. Paul is clear in his own writings that he converted to Christianity only after Jesus’ resurrection, an event which Paul himself never dates or for which he never names a location. Paul’s silence on such details is baffling given his determination “not to know any thing..., save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). A comparison of the content of Paul’s epistles with what we read in the gospel narratives proves that this is not the only area where Paul is conspicuously silent. For instance, in my blog Reckless Apologetic Presumptuousness, which I posted nearly three years ago to this day, I listed no less than 40 items taken from the gospels at which Paul does not even give a whisper of a hint. These include significant story elements such as Jesus’ virgin birth, the Magi, his association with John the Baptist, his teaching in parables, his miraculous wonder-working, his miracle healings, exorcisms, an empty tomb, Doubting Thomas, etc. If we had only Paul to go by in our knowledge of Jesus, we would never learn about any of these things, and Christmas nativity scenes would look altogether different, or simply not exist at all.

A common response from Christians is make the plea that reference to any of these things would be redundant in Paul’s case, for his intended audiences would have already known about these things. This assumes knowledge of what was preached to Paul’s churches, and one can only wonder where this knowledge comes from. It also ignores numerous opportunities which it has Paul pass up in which he could have drawn from Jesus’ example and teachings in order to strengthen his own arguments (e.g., baptism, circumcision, clean vs. unclean food, the law, etc.). And curiously, when we get to the late epistles, including even those outside the NT canon, we do in fact find references to gospel details of Jesus’ life. Another common response, which goes against the previous one, is to point out numerous things in Paul’s letters which do show his knowledge of the earthly Jesus. This latter approach is one which commenter David, in his Aug. 16 comment in response to my blog In Response to David on I Corinthians 15:3-8, deployed when he listed 17 items as references in the Pauline epistles to the earthly Jesus we know from the gospels. In my blog Another Response to David, Part 5: Paul’s Knowledge of Jesus, I examined each of these 17 references and concluded that they are not instances of Paul drawing from knowledge of the historical Jesus, but are rather symbolic or theological traditions which the later evangelists grafted into their concocted narratives of Jesus’ pre-exaltation biography. Then, in another lengthy comment, David interacted with my points in response to 14 of the 17 items he had earlier cited, apparently in an attempt to salvage them on behalf of the view that Paul was in each case drawing from knowledge of the historical Jesus.

In the next couple of blog entries I will interact with David’s rejoinders to my points in response to the items he cited. But before proceeding with those, David raised issue with several of my preliminary points about silences in the early epistles, and I will devote the remainder of this log entry to addressing his concerns.

The Deafening Silence

I wrote:

Since Paul is the earliest writer in the New Testament, a running constant throughout a rational examination of Christian origins is the question: What did Paul know of Jesus? Specifically, what did Paul know of the earthly Jesus, the Jesus before crucifixion. The gospels did not exist yet when Paul was missionizing his churches and writing his letters. The gospels were written well after this time, and a comparison of what Paul writes in his letters with what we read in the gospel narratives raises some fascinating questions. Scholars for over two centuries now have noted the profoundly different views of Jesus which, on the one hand, the early epistles, including but not limited to Paul’s, and on the other the gospels give us.

David responded:

I have no problem with asking about what Paul knew of Jesus.


My problem is when we make assertions about his knowledge based solely on lack of evidence.

Yes, I can see that David does have this problem.

I think arguments from silence can be used in tandem with other evidence to support a conclusion, and indeed this is what you have attempted to do.

There’s no question that we must be careful when enlisting an argument from silence to support a position. However, as Wells correctly acknowledges:

silence on a topic does not prove ignorance of it; but a writer’s silence is surely significant if it extends to matters obviously relevant to what he has chosen to discuss. And if we believe the gospels, there was much in Jesus’ biography that would have been relevant to the disputes in which Paul was embroiled. (The Historical Evidence For Jesus, p. 31. Wells proceeds to identify a number of areas where Paul’s silence is thus significant.)

How are we to determine when “silence on a topic” is “significant”? Wells reiterates his point above with an example of his own:

The silence of the early material about so much of what Jesus (according to the later material) said and did, is widely admitted to be something of a problem. Of course, silence does not always imply ignorance. But a book on transport in Cologne which, though written after 1965, made no reference to an underground railway, might reasonably be presumed to have been written in ignorance of the underground then constructed there. In other words, silence on a topic is significant if this silence extends to matters obviously relevant to what the writer has chosen to discuss. (Ibid., p. 218)

Myself no big fan of Wikipedia, I did look up the article on Cologne there and found that even this general article does include a reference to an underground railway. It even includes a photograph of one of the subway stations. So I’m inclined to suppose Wells’ example here is positively demonstrative of his point: if a general article on the city of Cologne includes a reference to its underground railway, a book dedicated to transportation in Cologne which fails to make any reference to it, can reasonably be inferred to have been written in ignorance of it.

The apologist for literalist Christianity, however, seeking to defend its dogmas against the potent threat which Paul’s blaring silences pose for them, tends toward the stance that Paul’s letters to his budding churches are not analogous in their concern for Jesus to a book on transport systems in a historic German capital. But why wouldn’t they be analogous to this? After all, Paul declared that he was “determined not to know anything..., save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). And yet, in spite of this determination which Paul stresses, he never gives any indication of when Jesus was crucified, where he was crucified, or under what circumstances this event had allegedly taken place.

Wells points out:

It is sometimes contended that Paul is silent concerning what the gospels record as Jesus’ biography simply because he was writing to people who did not need to be reminded of such matters. But why, then, does he again and again mention his death by crucifixion, with which, in terms of the case, they were equally familiar? And why do his many references to this event nevertheless give no indication of where, when, or under what circumstances it occurred? (The Historical Evidence For Jesus, p. 37)

Paul continually refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection as the most significant elements in his soteriology. Can we not expect, by the same token on which Paul’s silences are dismissed, that his audiences were already familiar with these points?

My Overall Approach

David then sought to reduce my position to a concise syllogism:

Your argument for the Gospels being legendary expansion can be roughly generalized to these premises:

P1. The testimony of Paul lacks much of the earthly accounts in the Gospels
P2. The Gospels show internal signs of legendary development
P3. Explanatory power can be derived from pagan mythology to explain some of Paul’s ideas about Christ (the Lord’s Supper for example)

Roughly generalizing in this manner tends to leave out some key facts. Unfortunately the syllogism given here does not adequately reflect my course of reasoning. If I were to encapsulate it within the confined structure presented here, it would be closer to the following:

P1. Not only do the early NT epistles (not just Paul's) fail to corroborate the later narratives' depictions of Jesus' pre-crucifixion biography, the portrait of Jesus given in the early epistles is incompatible with the portrait of the gospels and later NT books. There are also significant points of disagreement between Paul’s letters and the book of Acts.

P2. The gospels show many signs of legendary development, both amongst themselves as well as within the larger context of Christian canonical and non-canonical literature.

P3. Sources for Paul's views of Jesus include recast OT motifs, themes and quotations, the Wisdom literature, as well as Hellenistic culture (including mystery religions), but significantly not the biography of a recently living historical individual.

In connection with my P1, we should be careful to note that the gospels speak of a Jesus who

in the opening decades of the first century, taught and worked miracles, conducted his ministry in Galilee and the died in Jerusalem, and at the behest of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate – all this is what the gospels affirm, and presumably what various traditions on which they drew affirm; but none of it is told of him in the extant Christian epistles which are earlier than the gospels, nor in those documents which are more or less contemporaneous with the gospels but clearly independent of them. This is particularly striking when the behaviour or teaching ascribed to him in the gospels has obvious relevance to the concerns being pursued by the writers of these epistles... It is not just that these epistles are silent on such matters, but that they view Jesus in a quite different way, indeed that their Jesus – a supernatural personage only obscurely on Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past – is not the same person as the itinerant first-century Galilean preacher whose public activity led to some of the traditions on which the gospels (particularly the first three of them) are based. There is good reason to believe that the Jesus of Paul was constructed largely from musing and reflection on a supernatural ‘Wisdom’ figure (amply documented in earlier Jewish literature), who sought an abode on Earth but was there rejected, rather than from information concerning a recently deceased historical individual. Altogether, musing and reflection on earlier sacred texts has been – and often still is – a very significant factor in the formation and development of religious ideas. (Wells, The Jesus Myth, p. xviii)

In connection with my P2, Earl Doherty points out that

we consistently see the basic form [of the narrative of Jesus’ earthly life] in Mark, followed by a pattern of ascending order of detail and sophistication which more or less coincides with the order in which the Gospels were written. This is a dead giveaway that later writers are enlarging on earlier ones... we have one story, with multiple reworkings... Mark, in fact, is simplicity personified throughout his entire Gospel, so his passion story simply conforms to his own writing style. Those later flowery narratives are indeed legend-building, but they are legends that built on Mark’s precedent... Mark... contains almost nothing which cannot be traced back to verses in scripture... The best explanation for Mark’s “simplicity” is that he was the first fashioner of a basic story. Prior to that initial tale, we face a complete void on any details of the passion of Jesus. (Challenging the Verdict, pp. 167, 173, 181)

In connection with my P3, I again defer to Wells:

The silences of these early epistles are ‘baffling’ only if it is assumed that their Jesus is the same person as the Jesus of the gospels. The ministry of the latter is... arguably traceable to the career of an itinerant Galilean preacher of the opening decades of the first century; but the Pauline Jesus seems to have a different origin. He may have been to some extend modelled on gods of pagan mystery religions who died and were resurrected, but he clearly owes much more to a particular early Christian interpretation of Jewish Wisdom traditions... It is not in dispute that many religious ideas among Jews and early Christians originated as a result of musing on and extracting hidden meanings from existing sacred and semi-sacred texts. Paul says that “whatever was written in former days” – he has sacred writings in mind – “was written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4). Now there was an ancient Wisdom myth which explained the underlying goodness of creation and also the undeniable evil in it by combining two ideas: that a Wisdom figure stood at God’s side and participated as he created the world (Proverbs 8:22-31), and that when Wisdom sought an abode on Earth, mankind refused to accept her, forcing her to wander from one place to another, until finally in despair she returned to heaven:

Wisdom found no place where she might dwell. Then a dwelling place was assigned to her in the heavens. Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, and found no dwelling-place. Wisdom returned to her place and took her seat among the angels. (1 Enoch 42:1-2)

... The influence of Jewish Wisdom literature on Paul is undeniable: statements made about Wisdom in this literature are made of Jesus in the Pauline letters. At 1 Cor. 1:24 Paul actually calls Christ “the power of God and the Wisdom of God”; and Paul’s Jesus, like the Jewish Wisdom figure, sought acceptance on Earth, but was rejected, and then returned to heaven. At Coloss. 2:3 we read of “Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. Like Wisdom, he assisted God in the creation of all things (1 Cor. 8:6). (The Jesus Myth, pp. 95-97)

Naturally all these points can be developed, and they have been in the sources which I have cited. Of course (and I know Christians won’t like this), the literalist Christian interpretation grants validity to supernaturalism, and not only is there no good reason to do so, there are also numerous reasons why belief in the supernatural is irrational, as I have shown (see for instance my paper Bahnsen on “Knowing the Supernatural”). This reason alone is sufficient to reject Christianity, but it will take a long time for many people to come to grips with it.

Meanwhile, Christians have told me how improbable Jesus’ fulfillment of OT prophecies is. As Christian Harvey Burnett himself put it:

The chances are 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. Which is equivalent to taking as many silver dollars as it would take, and cover the state of Texas with them until it was 2 FEET deep. Then mark ONE Silver Dollar, stir the coins up thoroughly all over the state, put a blindfold on a man, tell him he can travel as far as he wishes wihin the state but he MUST pick out the ONE marked coin... In other words There's NO CHANCE one man could have fulfilled all of these 8 prophecies yet alone the ADDITIONAL 40 in his lifetime with the percision that was done unless HE IS GOD.

In response to this, I stated:

By making the matter an issue of probability, Harvey undercuts his own position quite severely. Consider the scenario he uses to illustrate the sheer remoteness of the probability he ascribes to Jesus’ fulfillment of OT prophecy. If I told Harvey that, under the conditions he describes, I know someone who found the one marked silver dollar in the 100,000,000,000,000,000 coins that buried the state of Texas on the very first draw, would Harvey believe me? According to Harvey’s own statement, apparently not, for he insists that “There’s NO CHANCE one man could have” done this – either find that one coin, or that “one man could have fulfilled all of these 8 prophecies.” It seems that Harvey himself is telling us that this is not to be believed, given the proportions of the stated improbability. It is just a made up story that the guy I know found the coin on the first try. If we grant the astronomical improbability of this happening that Harvey insists we accept, then other explanations become more probable, such as that the story of the guy finding the one marked coin out of 100,000,000,000,000,000 is either mistaken, false, or simply fabricated.

On the one hand, Christians want their supernaturalism, but then they want to play the numbers racket by inflating the odds so much that they blow up right in their faces.

So there are numerous avenues I can pursue here, including the internal evidence, the philosophical, as well as exposure of apologetic absurdities.

David’s Counterpoints

David’s response to the argument scheme which he attributes to me above was:

R1.1 Paul’s intended purpose for the letters is incongruent with the assumption that he “would have” included all known information about Jesus’ earthly ministry in addressing his original audience

I don't think anyone has argued that Paul "would have included all known information about Jesus' earthly ministry" had he known it. Even Wells does not claim this, nor do Doherty or Price as far as I can tell. And I certainly do not. Rather, this seems to be an exaggerated construal of a position intended to disgrace the observation that Paul and other early writers are conspicuously ignorant of significant details of the gospel version of Jesus’ biography. The fact that these authors fail to include any of these details is most inexplicable if they did have knowledge of it. For instance, when Paul speaks of Jesus being "born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4), he noticeably leaves out the detail, common to both Matthew and Luke, that Jesus was born of a virgin. When Paul speaks about baptism, he does not mention the part about Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. When he speaks about circumcision and other points of contention over the Law, he does not mention Jesus' conflicts with the Jewish leadership over observance of the law or his defiance of the Sabbath. I could go on, but these examples are sufficient to secure my point.

As have many others, David errs in assuming that the silences in the early epistles are exclusive to Paul. Wells draws the following point on this:

These overall silences by different authors are significant. If Paul alone had written as he did of Jesus, one might just possibly be able to attribute this to some personal idiosyncrasy, but a consistent silence by numerous independent early writers about matters which, had they known of them, they could not but have regarded as relevant to their purposes, cannot be so explained. This very important point has been ignored by most of my critics, who writes as though I base my whole case on the silences of Paul. Characteristic is Ian Wilson, who calls them the “linchpin” of my arguments, and gives no indication that I show such silence to be pervasive throughout all the earliest Christian documents. Wilson admits to “pro-Christian bias” ([Jesus: The Evidence], p. 7), and it is amply reflected in the tone of his comments (“Professor Wells and like detractors”, who writes “scholarly-looking” books and, with his “likes”, seizes on a “ready excuse” to discount significant evidence; pp. 41-43). Having narrowed this issue down to the silences of Paul, Wilson thinks them quite easy to explain: Paul never met the pre-crucifixion Jesus, and “it is therefore hardly to be expected that he would be full of chapter and verse on Jesus’s biography” (p. 42). To suggest that Paul is merely ‘not full’ of such biographical allusions is a gross understatement and a facile way of discounting the significance of his silences... Equally significant is that the silences of the earliest documents is not maintained in epistles written sufficiently late for their authors to have been cognizant of at any rate some elements of the synoptic tradition. We saw this apropos of the way they refer to the Passion (above, pp. 57f); and when we come to 2 Peter, we find “for the first time clear [epistolary] reference to a pre-Passion event in Jesus’ life”, namely the transfiguration (Thompson, [Clothed With Christ: The Example and Teaching of Jesus in Romans 12:1-15:13], p. 43). Thompson adds that this letter is arguably the very latest NT epistle: scholars are now nearly unanimous that it is pseudepigraphical, and many of them date it in the second century. France allows that today, even among evangelical Christians, few would try to defend its Petrine authorship with any enthusiasm ([Evangelical Anglicans], p. 51). Outside the canon, 1 Clement, probably as late as the turn of the century, did not know the gospels..., yet specifies mercy, forgiveness, and reciprocity as teachings of Jesus, and says that he warned against causing the elect to stumble; and Ignatius of Antioch tells his fellow Christians that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, baptized by John, crucified under Pilate and that after resurrection he ate and drank with his followers as a real body. One would look in vain for such specific information in the early epistles... They appear to be unaware not only of the gospels but also of the basic traditions underlying them. The reasonable inference, then, is: either these traditions are entirely legendary, or they refer to a Jesus figure (probably historical) quite different from the Jesus of the earliest documents. (The Jesus Myth, pp. 67-68)

Since some later epistles, including both the canonical (yet pseudepigraphical) 2 Peter and the non-canonical epistles of Ignatius, do in fact contain references to the Jesus of the synoptic tradition, it is futile to argue that inclusion of such information goes against the “authorial intent” of the epistolary genre. Paul, for instance, tells us in I Cor. 2:2 that he was “determined not to know anything..., save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” And yet in all his letters where he is frequently speaking of Jesus and his crucifixion or resurrection, he never once mentions when it took place, where it took place, or the circumstances under which it transpired. It is hard to see how all these details would lie outside Paul’s “authorial intent,” given what he indicates regarding his intent. To explain these silences, David seems to be saying that Paul’s purpose for his letters is incongruent with the assumption or possibility that he would have included any known information about Jesus’ life. In the numerous references in Paul’s letters to baptism, would it really have been contrary to his “authorial intent” to deliberately remain silent about Jesus’ own baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, which according to the gospels inaugurated Jesus’ missionary work? When Paul tries to argue his case regarding the Mosaic Law, would it really have been outside his “authorial intent” to make at least some reference to Jesus’ teaching on it, as found, for instance, in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (where, incidentally, Jesus affirms the whole law), or Jesus’ conflicts with the chief priests (such as in regard to the keeping of the Sabbath)? And when Paul gives certain moral teachings which the gospels attribute to Jesus (I quoted Wells at length documenting numerous examples of this), would it really have been against his “authorial intent” to credit Jesus for these teachings? I’ve seen no good reason to suppose any of these things would have been contrary to Paul’s purposes in his letters, but this is what the prevailing explanation of these silences requires us to believe.

David’s response to what he takes as my argument began with the following point:

R1.2 While focusing on the gaps is certainly valid, we must not forget the long list of things Paul does tell us about Jesus

And I've not forgotten this. Indeed, I dedicated a whole post to the claim that Paul did know about the earthly Jesus. And below I strengthen my points in regard to these claims by response to David’s attempted counterpoints. In fact, Paul tells us precious little about the earthly Jesus, by comparison with the gospels so little that it is widely admitted by scholars to be a significant problem.

David wrote:

R2.1 Thematic differentiation, telescoping, and selective inclusion do not constitute embellishment but merely demonstrates an authorial intent that has its audience in mind.

Embellishments are readily evident in the canonical versions of Jesus’ biography, particularly in the passion sequences, precisely because there are several accounts of it. A side-by-side comparison of these accounts reveals some riveting indications of redaction, embellishment, expansion and modification.

In regard to Mark, the earliest gospel, Wells quotes Telford, who concedes that this gospel

is now widely regarded as the product of a more or less creative editorial process upon diverse and discreet oral (and possibly written) traditions which had circulated for a generation within the primitive Christian communities that transmitted them. (The Interpretation of Mark, p. 41; quoted in Wells, The Jesus Myth, pp. 257-258)

But apologists for literalist Christianity want the gospel of Mark to be the product of Peter’s secretary, who allegedly took dictation at the side of an aged fisherman-turned-apostle, whose memory at a later age must have been supple enough to recount speeches, sermons, prayers, parables and other sayings which the gospel puts into Jesus’ mouth. It’s always curious to me how apologists for Christianity seem to play fast and loose with the propensities of memory as one gets older. Wells (The Jesus Myth, p. 16) quotes Mitton (Jesus: The Fact Behind the Faith, p. 70):

for a man of sixty, the events of his life thirty years before, especially outstanding ones such as contact with Jesus must have been, stand out as clearly as yesterday’s

So according to this, things which one experienced long ago can be remembered as vividly as something he experienced just earlier today, which – if one’s memory of something that happened just the day before is indeed vivid – must be quite reliable. Then there’s Geisler and Turek, who in their corny book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist tell us (p. 244) that

those of us who are “over the hill” can remember some events from 30 years ago better than those from 30 minutes ago!

Suddenly one’s memory of the distant past is actually better than one’s memory of recent things. Apparently these thought experiments are supposed to inform our knowledge of the ability to remember on the part of those who wrote the gospels. We are expected simply to grant that what we are reading is the product of infallible memories, and discouraged to suppose that perhaps there was some literary construction going on. And even though it is implicitly conceded that sufficient time for a legend to have taken root has passed, at no point are we allowed to entertain the possibility that these authors may have confabulated their experiences of two or three or even more decades before. Meanwhile, apologists tell us that the human mind has been infected with “sin” and that it is untrustworthy in its pursuit of truth when unaided by supernatural revelation, a phenomenon which has yet to be explained. It is never to be considered that a profoundly emotionally stirring experience can grow in intensity and proportion over the years in one’s mind as he contemplates it and invests it with cosmic significance. Were I to have such an unquestioningly accurate memory at my age today! I suppose we’re expected to take for granted that there was zero chance that Peter could have been afflicted with Alzheimer’s in his later years.

Let’s get back to reality. The gospels ascribed to Matthew and Luke obviously took the gospel ascribed to Mark as their basic model. Apologetic attempts to dispel this fact quickly encounter their own futility. Observe:

In an appendix in his The Law (p. 123), [Christian apologist J.W.] Montgomery quotes an apologist who says that, if the accounts in different gospels of the same transactions were in strict verbal conformity with each other, then “the argument against their credibility would be much stronger”, for their testimony would then be exposed as collusive. But any synopsis, where parallel passages are set out in adjacent columns, will show that the first three of the four canonical gospels have passages which are identical, down to the same Greek particles. For instance, Matthew’s account, in the material it shares with Mark, is abbreviated and Mark’s 11,078 words are represented by 8,555; yet of these 4,230 are identical both in form and in sequence. Goulder gives these figures and adds that the enormous number of identical phrases is not to be explained as being do to the community’s good memory of Jesus’s teaching, as more than half of such phrases are in the narrative, not the words of Jesus. Goulder and others have also found it significant that the individual pericopes occur very largely in the same order in the synoptics. Wenham (Redating, p. 7) notes that within the Galilean ministry there are numerous events and teachings which have no obvious logical or chronological sequence, yet are given in the same order in all three synoptics. As a further example he mentions Mk. 6:14-16:8 and Matthew chapters 14 to 28. Here are seventy items, all in order (except for a minor difference in the way the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree are related), “and this in spite of various omissions and additions by one or other evangelist.” It is difficult to believe that such correspondence could have arisen without a literary connection – without, that is, the one writer drawing on the work of the other or on a common source. Wenham’s remarks carry particular weight because he is anxious to minimize the literary dependence of one evangelist upon another, and to argue that each one “writes in the way he habitually teaches” (p. xxi). But even he does not feel able to regard the synoptics as independent editions of primitive oral material. (The Jesus Legend, pp. 95-96).

David wrote:

Each Gospel had a clearly different intended audience, and thus includes different relevant content respectively.

This is misleading. While it may be the case that the authors of the gospels had different intended audiences in mind, it would not follow from this supposition that the general intent of their writing was different. It’s undeniable that each gospel is intended to depict the public life and passion of the earthly Jesus, while Paul’s letters are clearly intended to lay out proper Christian teaching on the topics they address. These are not incompatible intents lacking any and all possibility of overlap. On the contrary, if – as the gospels claim – Jesus during his earthly life spoke on the kinds of things which Paul’s letters address in their attempts to settle disputes, why wouldn’t Paul cite Jesus’ own teachings and example, if he had known of them?

It really beggars belief that Paul, anxious as he was to inculcate numerous ethical principles (such as ‘judge not’ and ‘practise forgiveness’), knew that Jesus had taught them, yet did not appeal to his authority on such matters. Nor is it believable that both Paul and the Christians who strongly opposed him in an ill-tempered quarrel on the question of obeying or ignoring the Jewish food laws knew yet ignored rulings which, according to the gospels, Jesus had given on the matter. Nor is it plausible that Paul’s convictions on the second coming left him indifferent to eschatological statements supposedly made by Jesus which eventually came to be recorded in the gospels. Nor can I accept that what Jesus had supposedly said on all such fundamental issues was of no interest to all other earthly writers either, or simply presupposed by them as known to their readers. It will not do to say that allusions to these matters cannot be expected in epistles; for those written late enough to have known traditions which in due course found their way into the gospels do allude to them. (The Jesus Legend, pp. 94-95)

Vague appeals to “authorial intent” or “different intended audiences” are unpersuasive, especially if we’re expected to understand with these references that Paul and other early epistle writers were familiar with the earthly Jesus depicted in the gospel narratives. If believers find this so difficult to offer more legitimate explanations for these significant disparities and silences (particularly given Paul’s intense concern regarding his own validation as an apostle), why not simply concede that Paul, the earliest writer of the NT, did not know of these things? But if this is conceded, we need to ask why wouldn’t he have known of these things, if he were divinely inspired. Or, are we to suppose that he knew of these things, but deliberately refrained from mentioning them in his letters, even though citing them could have greatly supported his position on the matters he addressed?

Indeed, it should be borne in mind that campaigners for a position may tailor their message to particular audiences, but the overall intent may remain the same from venue to venue, from speech to speech, from pamphlet to pamphlet.

David wrote:

R3.1 Explanatory power cannot be derived from pagan mythology because evidence for such has not been provided.

Here we have but an open denial taking refuge in an argument from ignorance, thus lacking the force of blow it is intended to deliver. That Paul drew on sources other than gospel-like traditions to inform his view of Jesus has already been established above. Paul constructed his views of Jesus by musing and reflecting on sacred literature, including the OT as well as the Jewish Wisdom literature. That having been said, however,

The pagan environment of earliest Christianity also cannot have been unimportant. The classical scholar Dihle allows that many of the features of the pagan mystery cults found their way into Christianity ([“The Graeco-Roman Background,” in Jesus in His Time], p. 13). Some of these cults worshipped a saviour who died a violent death and was then revived or resurrected. Osiris, for instance, is said in very ancient records to have been dismembered, reassembled by Isis and “rejuvenated”, i.e., restored to life. Of course there are differences both between the various mystery religions and between them and Pauline Christianity. Yet the Osiris cult and the Eleusinian mysteries were part of Paul’s background, and one does not expect a new religion to be absolutely identical with its antecedents. The parallels between some of the relevant Christian and pagan rites and doctrines were certainly close enough to have embarrassed second-century Christians. Justin Martyr, for instance, after describing the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as narrated in the gospels, goes on to say: “Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithra, commanding the same thing to be done. For bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantation in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated.” (Apology, I, 66. The Christian cultic meal sometimes consisted of bread and water: see The Jesus of the Early Christians, p. 264.) He is not accusing the Mithraists of simply copying, but supposed that evil spirits anticipated Christian truths, as when he noted (in his Dialogue with Trypho, 70): “When I hear that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this.” Justin’s theory is that the demons knew from the prophets that Christ was to come and what he would be like, and therefore devised such gods as Bacchus, Hercules, Asclepius, and Mithras to resemble him before his time, so that he would seem unimpressive when he did come. That the demons likewise anticipated Christian sacraments (baptism as well as eucharist) is a simple extension of this theory which, as Ramsey notes ([Beginning to Read the Fathers], p. 200), was reiterated by later Christian writers. That the Lord’s Supper existed before Christianity is clear from 1 Cor. 10:21, where Paul tells the Corinthian flock that they “cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils”, nor “partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils”. Pagan gults, then, had their own ritual of ‘holy communion’, prior to and independent of Christianity. The same is true of the pre-Christian Jews whose views are evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls. (The Jesus Myth, pp. 99-100)

Denying the existence or influence of cults which centered around worship of Osiris, Mithra and other pagan deities on Christianity simply will not due if we are to conduct a responsible inquiry into Christianity’s origins.

Recall that I had written:

The gospels did not exist yet when Paul was missionizing his churches and writing his letters. The gospels were written well after this time…

David responded:

Also, “well after this time” is assuming a particular dating for the Gospels - of which arguments are absent - while I have presented several for my assumed dating.

Actually, "well after this time" assumes only a general (rather than “particular”) dating scheme for the gospels. It is pretty much universally accepted that the earliest gospel (“Mark”) was written after Paul had written his letters. Of course, Paul did not date his letters, but critics are generally agreed that they were written from as early as about AD 50 to as late as about AD 65. As for when the gospels were written, there is obviously considerable disagreement among scholars on this, some preferring an early date while others seeing later dates as more reasonably plausible. Naturally many Christians are going to want to see the composition of the gospels as early as possible. A common argument for a pre-70 AD date for the composition of the gospel of Mark, for instance, rests on an appeal to Papias, who is the source of the claim that Peter dictated his gospel to a secretary named Mark, an unknown personage which Paul never mentions in any of the authentically Pauline epistles (he is mentioned in II Tim. 4:11, but this epistle is unreliable because of its pseudonymity).

Meanwhile, Wells offers plenty of argumentation for dating the gospels post-70 (and some even as late as 90-100) in his book The Jesus Myth (cf. pp. 14-49). I see no reason why I need to regurgitate Wells’ arguments here.

I wrote:

if they are in fact primitive rudiments which later narrative-constructors adapted in their growing yarn of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion life.

David responded:

Well if they are primitive rudiments not based in fact, I do hope you will humor me with an alternate explanation for where they came from (pagan mythology etc.) and provide some concrete evidence with dates.

First of all, neither David nor other Christians have succeeded in demonstrating that the primitive rudiments in question are based in historic facts about the earthly Jesus’ life. Simply affirming that the gospels are genuinely historical accounts only begs the question, for this is what Christians are called to prove. Also, I’ve pointed to several sources (the OT, the Wisdom literature, Hellenistic culture, including mystery cults) from which Paul and other early Christians drew their portrait of the messiah figure they worshipped. The expectation for a messiah had been there all along. It was just a matter of time until inventive zealots started piecing together the puzzle anew to concoct a “fulfillment” of this expectation.

I wrote:

As for whether or not the gospel writers used Paul as a source, this is unclear. However, as I have shown, many of the teachings which Paul gives as his own or as inspired by his interpretation of ‘the scriptures’ are put into Jesus' mouth in the gospels. This suggests that later writers were using sources that were influenced by Paul, even if they did not mention or credit Paul.

David responded:

Yes if we simply assert that they were “put into Jesus’ mouth” instead of the more rhetorically neutral “alleged sayings of Jesus” we can really make the point sound much more convincing. But alas, why must be use such tactics if the argument itself stands as firm as we claim.

Because this is precisely what the later evangelists did when they were constructing their narratives of the earthly Jesus’ life: they took from earlier source material, such as teachings which were current in early Christianity (but which had not been supposed to have originated from the earthly Jesus) and put into Jesus’ mouth in the context of those narratives in order to stamp them with supreme authority. The opportunity, the motivation and the need were all present by the time the evangelists got down to writing their portraits of the earthly Jesus.

by Dawson Bethrick